BUREH BEACH, Sierra Leone — There is at least one place in this country, along a quiet, palm-fringed cove, where nobody is talking about viral loads or death rates, treatment centers or protective suits.
Instead, the focus is more elemental and more peaceful: on the rhythm of the waves, the pull of the ocean, the sets coming in.
Every weekend, despite the fact this country is in the throes of an Ebola epidemic, or maybe even because of it, a dozen or so die-hard local surfers paddle out into the blue-green swell, floating on their boards like water bugs.
“How you doing, K. K.?” one surfer yelled across the water to another on a recent morning.
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“I fine!” K.K. yelled back. Her smile was enormous. “I just caught a big wave.”
Ebola is still gnawing through Sierra Leone, the worst-hit country in the world. Hundreds of people are infected each week, and the official death toll is closing in on 3,000. Bulldozers keep knocking down trees, smoothing out more land for more graveyards. Little vans with tinted windows prowl the country roads, ominous fixtures on the horizon, “RIP” painted on their hoods.
But as death goes on, life goes on, each as stubborn as the other.
Every morning, thousands of people march in from the thick green hills ringing Freetown, the capital, to take their places at their desks, or in their sheet metal kiosks, or along the main roads, where so much of the economy — from mangoes and stacks of trousers to plastic pipes and buckets of gravel — trades hands.
Plucky entrepreneurs are turning tragedy into art — and commerce — by making low-budget Ebola movies that sell for $2 a DVD. Roasting chickens twirl away in the windows of Lebanese restaurants, where people gather for lunch and a flick through the papers for the latest round of bad news. Hoteliers say business has plummeted, but they keep up a positive front.
“Morning, brudda. Morning, sista,” the clerks belt out each new day.
But on the outskirts of Freetown, along a perfect crescent of golden sand where little wooden shacks stare out at the sea and the palms hang heavy with fuzzy coconuts, the Bureh Beach Surf Club gives new meaning to the word “resilience.” No one here is bowing to the virus. Instead, the surfers seem determined to live out their passion as a way to cope.
The club was just getting going when Ebola hit. The idea behind the club, founded in 2012 by poor fishermen and run like a cooperative, was to enhance ecotourism, protect Sierra Leone’s pristine coastline and create some jobs. Bureh Beach is the only surf club in the country, and the 30 or so surfers in it eke out a living by renting out boards and cooking beachside meals for tourists, who used to arrive in scores. These days, they mostly see the lone aid worker or a few others swept in to work on Ebola.
The sign at the beach’s entrance, scratched on an old surfboard, says it all: “Di Waves Dem Go Mak U Feel Fine.”
Jahbez Benga, a slab of muscle who used to be a journeyman fisherman until he stood up on a surfboard for the first time and never looked back, said surfing was like therapy, especially during times like these.
“When you’re inside the water,” he explained, “you shouldn’t be thinking about anything, not Ebola, not nothing, just the waves.”
The Bureh surfers do a Zen-like job of blocking everything out as they carve up the lips of ocean rollers and cruise in the foam. But all around their little cove, others, even the ones who have been lucky enough to survive Ebola, are struggling to put their lives back together.
George Bangalie, who lives about an hour away, barely remembers his descent into sickness. He was dizzy, then delirious, then rushed into an Ebola clinic. All he can recall now are the moans of patients, the faceless doctors and the blur of nurses and cleaners and body men peering down over him, covered head to toe in yellow plastic suits.
“It was like I seeing a different world,” he said.
Bangalie has recovered from Ebola and is now back in his old world, a slum.
“I feel better,” he said. “But I really need a job.”
For many Ebola patients, exercise was an important piece of their recovery. Maybe it was simply psychological, but many survivors said they built back their strength by jogging laps around the clinics and doing pushups on the ward’s concrete floors, at their doctors’ encouragement.
That vigor seems to be part of Sierra Leone’s national ethos, especially now, when so many people are fixated on staying healthy. Freetown’s streets thicken at dawn with men and women decked out in the latest and brightest spandex — jogging, stretching, jumping rope, or doing situps and pushups in the grass.
On Sunday mornings, some streets and roundabouts are so packed with fitness buffs that it looks as if a triathlon is about to start. It is not unusual to turn a corner and find a grown man enthusiastically doing jumping jacks, by himself, in the middle of the road.
At Bureh Beach, everyone looks in amazing shape. The surfers are lean and strong, with wasp waists, broad shoulders and six packs. Not one of their lot has gotten sick. At the beach entrance is a checkpoint staffed by a surfer with an infrared thermometer to scan all visitors and make sure it stays that way.
The club consists of a small warren of shacks, some for sleeping, some for cooking. A dozen or so surfboards lean against a bleached wooden rack. Benga is the head coach — he charges $12 for a lesson. He eyed a visitor carefully.
“First time?” he said.
“Yep,” the visitor replied.
“This’ll do,” he said, grabbing a 7-foot board.
The two trudged across the soft, wet sand and plunged into the waves. The water could not have been cooler than 80 degrees. The swells came in, a clean 3-foot-high beach break.
In the distance, overlooking the cove, stood a half-finished hotel, yet another casualty of the virus. Bureh Beach was set to hold its first international surfing tournament last fall, expected to attract 1,500 tourists and create 500 jobs. Ebola canceled it.
After a few wobbly slip-offs, the visitor caught a wave. There is nothing like the thrill of the shh, shh, shh of the edge of the board knifing through the water, kicking up a fine line of white spray, powered by nature.
“He’s up! He’s up!” Benga yelled.
Afterward, a sumptuous feast appeared from the beachside shacks: barbecued crab, freshly caught fish, hand-sliced French fries and mounds of spiced rice.
Benga beamed with pride as he presented the meal on old, cracked plates. Then he grabbed his board and waded back into the surf. He was not thinking about the canceled tournament, the deserted hotel or the wounds of his country.
At that moment, it was all about “di waves.”